My Rent Got A Major New Year Upgrade -- When Do I Concede Defeat?

In San Francisco, the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment is over $2,500 a month. Now that I'm getting a taste of that absurdity, at what point do I give up the ghost and just start working remotely from Small Town, USA?
Publish date:
January 7, 2013
san francisco, money, roommates, living, city life, gentrification

On the second day of January, my housemates and I came home to find a notice pinned to our door. In 60 days, it read, our landlords were going to hike our rent up, making our monthly bill almost a thousand bucks each. Welcome to the Silicon Valley, suckers. Happy New Year.

I mean, we kind of knew it was coming. Rent prices in San Francisco have skyrocketed 14.7 percent in the past year; in 2012, the average asking price on a one-bedroom was over $2,500 a month. My neighborhood, according to publications like the Wall Street Journal, has become increasingly desirable to the masses of young'uns who work at the Internet Giants 40 minutes south of here. Google even has a shuttle pickup station down the street from us.

A month ago, a Sidewalk Juice replaced the boarded-up CA$H FOR GOLD storefront six blocks away. Woody Allen filmed his new movie smack in the middle of my running route. In our area, things were definitely starting to look up economically.

Meanwhile, our landlords -- who a year ago gave us tequila whenever we paid the rent -- stopped returning our calls. After a string of local robberies, we tried to get the locks changed on our broken front door, which any half-drunk jerk with a credit card and a good shove could open. No response. To us, the message was clear: suck it up, pay more, or get out.

Our sink choked on hair and died, so we replaced the drain system with a bucket. Our pilot light stopped working, and we burned our thumbs on matches trying to put the kettle on after too many glasses of wine. Our dishwasher, always a luxury at the best of times, started to require actual heaving to get into place, and even then only ground the existing food further into the cracks of ceramic plates.

"Your landlord's kind of the worst," my friend Ella, who lives two blocks away, told me.

"Yeah, but it's worth it for $800 a month," I said, because it was.

I don't know if this is true of all cities, but in my circles, people ask, "How much rent do you pay?" at parties with wild, hungry eyes. San Francisco's only seven miles by seven miles -- eventually, survival of the fittest starts to win out. And in this case, "fittest" means "most willing to hand over cash."

I fully recognize the stupidity of complaining about this round of gentrification when it's nothing compared to all the non-white families who have been driven out of my block over the years. But I can't help but feel aimlessly resentful all the same, like my individual grumpiness is going to keep Facebook employees from paying half again as much money for my 10x12 one-window closet/room.

Not that I can blame them personally, of course, because in their positions I'd probably do the exact same thing. Why not?

Aside from the political aspects of the changes, I also just feel sad. I didn't love San Francisco when I first moved here. I'm a neurotic perfectionist with no patience for condescension, and at first glance, this city seemed perversely full of sleepwalkers and busybodies.

But during the last 18 months, I've slipped into a comforting rhythm. I buy arugula and plantain chips from the same bodega every Tuesday; I know the liquor store guy's kids' names. From my house, I can walk to six different bookstores, at least 15 bars, three vegan restaurants, and a store that sells nothing but pirate supplies.

The dudes next door, who used to hiss at my housemates and call us dykes, keep inviting me to play chess with them on their porch in the weak winter sun. We have tomatoes on the roof and ferns in the backyard. Every Sunday, my upstairs neighbors play jazz records as loud as they'll go, and I'll sit on the couch with one of the dogs and listen to the muffled horns filtering through the ceiling.

I'm a bit of a nomad by nature, but this is the longest I've lived in one place aside from the one I grew up in. It's hard not to walk back in the misting rain from the train at night, look at the yellow light from our living room window, and think, "Home."

Now, I guess the question is how much I'm willing to sacrifice to keep that contentment alive. I don't particularly want to leave San Francisco. I could move somewhere else in the city, I guess, but rents are high all over. Fleeing to Oakland like most of the artists and writers I know would add another hour to my already grinding commute, and any farther than that would require me to just work remotely.

This time around, I can probably scrape together enough to cover the increase. What about the next time, though?

I've never minded doing the leaving, but I hate being left behind. This feels like being left behind by someone who isn't actually going anywhere, which almost makes it worse.

When American suburbs first came into being, they were a way for the middle and upper classes to live apart from the crowded, often diseased scrum of local cities while still working in them. Now, it seems like the opposite is happening -- living and renting in the biggest urban areas is starting to become a rich person's privilege.

And like a lot of my peers are asking about New York or Los Angeles, I can't help but wonder: is living in the middle of the action really worth a solid grand every 30 days?

At this point, it's hard for me to imagine being anywhere else. That said, it's amazing how persuasive a rapidly emptying bank account can be. I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Kate is capturing the zeitgeist: @katchatters.